In November, for the first time in 21 months, Las Vegas recorded a year-to-year increase in air passengers.
McCarran International Airport saw a 0.1% uptick in travelers that month. It was the first year-over-year monthly increase since February 2008, which had an extra day because it was in a leap year, and only the second since October 2007.
Also on the upside, two of McCarran's top five carriers had higher flier counts in November. Southwest, the biggest carrier, served 9.3% more passengers than a year earlier. American Airlines carried 5.4% more.
McCarran's year-to-date flier count, 37.3 million, is down 8.7% from a year ago.
"A slight gain is better than no gain, and it's certainly better than a loss," McCarran spokesman Chris Jones said of the November increase.
"However, it's one month's data. And one month of flat figures should not be misconstrued as a trend."
Analysts see two trends behind Southwest's surge. Bijan Vasigh, managing director at Aviation Consulting Group, said Southwest has outperformed its rivals by diversifying its customer base to serve both leisure and business travelers.
Bob Mann, an airline analyst for Port Washington, N.Y.-based R.W. Mann & Co., said Southwest may be gaining passengers who might have flown US Airways.
Many carriers began cutting service to Las Vegas in September 2008 as the economy flagged and fuel costs rose, but US Airways has cut the most.
Nevertheless, Mann said, demand remains strong for Las Vegas.
"Las Vegas has done a fabulous job of marketing itself, not just as a place for gaming but as a place for meetings and business," he said.
Mann said airline rates may be at or slightly past the cusp of recovery.
Vasigh said he was encouraged by signs of economic stabilization and expects airline capacity to return to pre-recession levels in late 2010.
But Mann said there was a huge disparity between what happens in the mainstream marketplace and what happens on Wall Street. For airlines to fully recover and thrive again, he said, unemployment, which was 12.3% in Nevada in November, must decrease.
"What the airlines need to feel good about the market and put more capacity into the market is employed people who have discretionary income to spend on airfares, specifically for vacation travel," he said. "And they need businesses to earn good profits and send people on business trips, because that's where network carriers tend to focus.
"Given what we're seeing with employment, recovery for American business may be a long way off. We're not seeing job creation week to week or month to month. We're seeing job losses. And that, unfortunately, is not a good sign."
Crowley writes for the Las Vegas Review-Journal